Shades of Meaning in Names of Colors

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A recent newspaper article about the world’s ugliest color reminded me that writers of both fiction and nonfiction can be misguided in describing colors. The article referred to a study in which researchers identified the ugliest color: opaque couché.

This name (the official designation in the Pantone Matching System, a printing-industry codification of colors) is French for “nontransparent layer,” a translation just as unhelpful in helping people visualize the color, which has also been—ahem—colorfully described as baby poo green. Now, having read that description, who out there can’t picture opaque couché?

When describing colors, it’s best to associate them with known visual stimuli—objects (especially those from the natural world) known to have that color. Artists and fashionistas may know celadon from celery, but a layperson will likely draw a blank when trying to picture a sweater dyed celadon, while easily forming an image of a celery-colored one. Likewise, emerald or mantis will resonate better with readers than a vague term such as chartreuse or teal, or one with a place designation, such as “Paris green.”

Also, reconsider dated references. “Bottle green” was a useful descriptor in an era when glass containers of a distinctive green hue were ubiquitous, but the term will fall on blind eyes among younger readers. By contrast, “olive drab” is timeless, because of association with the fruit, though military combat uniforms, which used to be dyed in the color given that designation, are now generally earth toned.

Also, consider how evocative a term is. Bright green, harlequin, and neon green are very similar shades, but “bright green” is lifeless, and harlequin suggests a pattern rather than a hue, but “neon green” is a vivid descriptor. For a very specific demographic, “Nickelodeon-slime green” will evoke the color of the ooze known to people who watched game shows on the Nickelodeon cable and satellite network during the 1990s, but it won’t benefit other readers.

By all means, be as specific as possible in depicting colors, whether using a fictional character’s (or real-life person’s) choice of a fashion palette to provide insight into his or her personality or to convey an object’s or landscape’s appearance, but choose color descriptors carefully to enhance rather than obscure.

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6 thoughts on “Shades of Meaning in Names of Colors”

  1. One of the problems created by color names is their all-too-frequent empirical inaccuracy. The worst offender, Navy blue, is not the color of “blue” navy uniforms. Not even close. Bottle green (you referenced) was not at all like the green of glass bottles, and sea green doesn’t resemble the color of any sea I’ve seen. “Swimming pool bottom” green would register as much more truthful.
    Are the words chartreuse and teal that arcane? I’ve always thought those were relatively commonplace, though not exactly every-day words.
    I think the most authoritative source of color terms for anyone of a certain age is the 64 colors of the immortal and legendary Crayola 64 Colors Crayon box (sharpener in the rear), the 1958-1990 version being, of course, the classic canon. Ten year-olds back in the day could converse among themselves about things that were burnt sienna, raw umber, or even periwinkle without need of further adjectives. Those were the days…

  2. “sea green doesn’t resemble the color of any sea I’ve seen”

    I have definitely seen green seawater, sometimes in person and sometimes in movies and television programs.
    Green seawater is usually saltwater than has lots of green algae and similar organisms growing in it.
    Sometimes the greenness is emphasized by the way that the sunlight hits the water after passing through clouds, fog, or whatever.
    Green seawater is not pleasant to look at when one is feeling disoriented and nauseated aboard rocking ships and boats. Then there comes another way to describe green seawater: “puke green”. LOL. When my father was in the Army years ago, he had to make two long voyages in troopships: from Washington State to Japan, and later on from South Korea to Washington State (with a shorter trip from Japan to Korea in between). He told everyone in the family that he was seasick on the troopship almost all the time.
    He swore for many years that he would never venture out of the sight of land again!

  3. It is interesting how many “seas” of the ocean, or “inland seas” have been named for colors:
    The Black Sea, White Sea, Red Sea, Yellow Sea, and then there are probably names of seas in some other languages that would translate into the Blue Sea, the Green Sea, the Orange Sea, and the Azure Sea.

    A South Korean gentleman told me the translations (from Korean) of the three seas around Korea: the East Sea, the South Sea, and the West Sea. Very logical, from the Korean point of view.
    In English, we call the East Sea the Sea of Japan, and we call the West Sea the Yellow Sea (similar to the name that the Chinese gave it), and the South Sea doesn’t have a particular “sea” name other than the Tsu-Shima Straits. I think that maybe the Yellow River flows into the Yellow Sea.
    In German, the “Sudsee” is the South Pacific Ocean, though the literal translation of the word “Sudsee” is “South Sea”.

  4. While I was looking up some things about colors, seas, and oceans, I found out that there is a color called “seafoam green”.
    We could also see seawater that is “pea soup green”.
    Green pea soup does not go well together with seasickness, either.

  5. There is a noteworthy lake and tourist area in central Switzerland called “Blausee”.
    Of course “Blau” is the German word for “blue”, but “See” is one of those awkward German words. It can mean “sea” or “lake” depending on the context. So, “Blausee” looks like “Blue Sea”, but it really means “Blue Lake”.

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